Size: 6.00 x 9.00 in
Ryan Kaine is on the edge…
Lara Orchard is on a mission to prove herself.
Convincing her partner, Ryan Kaine, that she needs combat medical training, they fly to Denmark under assumed identities.
Kaine is on high alert, keeping a watchful eye on her throughout the course — but it’s not her medical skill he’s worried about.
Despite knowing the gunfire and the bombs aren't real, Lara struggles to control her fear, but leaves herself exposed to a threat she doesn't see coming. In a desperate attempt to protect her, and breaking his own moral code and a few bones, Ryan Kaine is pushed to his limits…
If you like Lee Child, Mark Dawson and Robert Ludlum, you’re going to find the Ryan Kaine series compulsively addictive.
Wednesday 13th April – Lara Orchard
Lara Orchard, in the guise of Dr Grace Sloane, sheltered under the dubious protection of a partially destroyed office block. All around her lay devastation—broken buildings, broken pavements, the suggestion of broken lives.
Bullets cracked and popped. Shells flew across a pale blue sky, crumped into the rubble somewhere ahead, and erupted with shocking and visceral ferocity. She ducked and flinched under each impact. If this represented battlefield conditions with any accuracy, she wanted no part of the real thing. What had she been thinking?
This isn’t real. It’s not real.
If she repeated the mantra often enough, she might actually start believing it again.
Lord, but it felt real. So darned real.
Her heart pounded. Breath caught in her dry throat.
Dust found its way beneath her protective glasses and stung her eyes. She tried blinking it away.
Whoever set up the pyrotechnics had done a first-class job. If the shells landed much closer, she’d have considered turning tail and running away, but she’d volunteered for this and would darned well see it through. Assuming the explosions kept their bloody distance.
She’d been with Ryan for what, eight months? Heck. Only eight months? So much had happened since the day he’d crashed into her life, bloodied and dying. They’d faced danger so very often, they’d overcome so many challenges, mostly together, but she’d never been so bone-deep scared. And, to cap it all, she faced the current test alone.
Without Ryan’s comforting and powerful presence at her side, everything seemed so much more difficult, so much more dangerous.
Darn it, Lara. It isn’t real!
Not real? The detonations pounding through her gut, rattling inside her head, deafening even through the ear defenders, were real. Visceral. Powerful. Terrifying.
Cringing in the apparent safety of a flimsy hideout while bombs and bullets rained down from above, she certainly felt exposed and vulnerable enough. Something could go wrong at any time. These were real explosives, real bullets. Even in the most controlled of situations, accidents still happened.
Come on, girl. Get a grip.
Another shell, the ninth, whistled overhead, tracing a white trail of death in an arc across the sky. She’d counted each one, praying for the bombardment to end. She’d seen and heard enough to take the message on board. This shell landed in the rubble a short distance from where she and her partner for the day, Heinrich “Hardy” Krüger, hid.
Too close for any comfort.
A moment later, the ground shook with the force of an explosion so loud, the concussion actually drove the air from her lungs. The largest shell yet. Someone was having fun at their expense.
Close. Too close.
Grit and sand flew through the air, peppering her back, shoulders, and neck. Mercifully, the combat helmet did its job of protecting her head.
Lara coughed her lungs clear of the grime, but that was all she could do. Despite all the tutors’ assurances, despite all her logic, fear threatened to freeze her to the spot.
How could anyone handle such mayhem without being frozen to the spot? How was she supposed to treat a casualty under such conditions? She couldn’t think, couldn’t hear, couldn’t breathe.
This isn’t real. It’s not real.
Hardy crouched beside and slightly behind her, nostrils flared, breathing shallow and fast, eyes wide and shining. Lara couldn’t tell whether the big, blond South African was as scared as her or having the time of his life. She wouldn’t have been surprised to discover it was a little of both.
He smiled his slick, animal grin.
Heck. He was getting off on the mayhem, the noise, and the destruction. Lara shivered.
When they’d first met, Hardy had seemed okay. A bit of a loudmouth with a barbed wit and a sharp tongue, but okay. Superficially, he was a cheery soul with an eye for the women on the course—just like so many military men she’d met—but underneath lay something else. The occasional sinister remark. An insult framed as a joke and hurriedly laughed off. Then came the boasting. The casual aside that showed him as a braggart. Apart from Lara, no one seemed to notice the viciousness, the veiled sexism and racism underlying the thin veneer of friendliness. She should have reported the way he treated the others—his taunts, his threats, his racist jibes couched as gags. She should have made a complaint, but she didn’t want to focus anyone’s attention onto herself. Then, Murphy’s Law kicked in and they’d lumbered her with Hardy as her partner for the final assessment.
Suck it up, Lara. You can do this.
After the latest billowing cloud of dust settled, Hardy focused his gaze on her. He bared his set of perfect white teeth, grinned his creepy, supercilious grin, and winked. The Afrikaner played the brave warrior, forcing the smile, but a darkness behind his eyes showed another emotion. Not fear. Not excitement. Something more primal, more primitive. Euphoria? Madness?
Again, Lara shivered.
Get a grip.
Ryan had warned her of the effects a heavy bombardment could have on the mind of the unprepared. Perhaps she was just imagining things.
Still grinning inanely, Hardy leaned closer.
“Fucking great, eh?” he shouted over the chattering gunfire. “This is why we’re here. What it’s all about.”
A tenth shell blew the heck out of another piece of already pulverised blockwork. Surely it couldn’t last much longer?
And to think, she’d chosen to be there. She’d actually been excited by the idea.
Silly, silly woman.
Why? Why had she done it?
From the peace and quiet of their villa in Aquitaine, with its beautiful coastline and protective, sound-absorbing dunes, it had seemed like a good idea. But now …
Lara, get a grip. You can do this.
“Can’t wait to get some of that action. Been looking forward to this.”
“Fool,” she mumbled, perhaps a little louder than she’d intended.
He sneered at her, again displaying a set of teeth that wouldn’t have looked out of place in the gaping maw of a shark, and shrugged his backpack into a more comfortable position. Normally, the tall, blond, and blue-eyed Afrikaner wore a healthy tan, but what little skin showed through the battledress and the camouflage makeup, shone with sweat and had paled a dozen shades.
Darn it, the braggart was scared, terrified even, but trying to bluff it out. At this rate, she’d have to carry the fool’s dead weight or they’d both fail the assessment and fail the whole darn course.
No, not happening.
No matter how scared she was, Lara would step it up. If she failed, Ryan would be really disappointed in her. Failure was not an option.
Breathe, Lara. Breathe.
She had to control her breathing, make it slow and steady, the way Ryan taught her to cope under the stress of battle.
The whole thing was her own darned fault.
Yes, she’d actually volunteered to be part of this mayhem. She was the one who decided to improve her skills in trauma medicine, no one else. She wanted, needed, to help Ryan and the others more effectively. And, yes she’d been excited about becoming a more valuable member of the team, while sitting out on the deck watching another stunning sunset in Ryan’s arms.
So naïve. Such an idiot.
She looked across at Sergeant Jensen, the on-field exercise supervisor. He knelt beside Alpha Team, monitoring their activity. They were treating their designated “casualty”. He’d been hit in the stomach. A gaping tear had ripped open his midriff. Cosmetic blood pumped from a realistic-looking wound, and sausage-like intestines erupted from a pack that had been strapped to the volunteer by the makeup team. The man screamed and writhed in apparent agony—overacting for all his worth.
While Hardy and Lara waited for their turn, Lieutenant Diakos, a doctor in Greece’s Hellenic Army, doused the wound in sterilised water and dressed it loosely. His partner for the day, the quiet Norwegian, Nils Ohnstad, set up a drip to pump meds into the casualty, who slowly relaxed. All the while, Jensen fired questions Lara couldn’t hear and added notes to the form on his clipboard.
Jensen gave Alpha Team the thumbs up and backed away, still crouching low. All the while, the bullets flew and the ordnance exploded in the distance, but now, some of the detonations were mere sound effects—not the percussive real thing.
Thank the Lord.
Lara allowed her shoulders to relax, but not by much.
Diakos and Ohnstad strapped their casualty onto a stretcher. They took the strain and, keeping low, hurried him towards the evac zone, ready for their end-of-exercise debrief.
Not long now.
Jensen scuttled towards Lara and Hardy, Bravo Team, and took a knee alongside her.
When she’d been designated as Bravo Team’s leader for the exercise, Hardy hadn’t been able to hide his contempt for the course organiser’s decision. He’d waited until the instructors had left the briefing room before showing it, though. Although a sexist, racist pig, he kept his feelings from the course directors. Hardy Krüger wasn’t stupid.
Cunning and nasty maybe, but definitely not stupid.
“Ready?” Jensen called to Lara, shouting over the latest simulated explosion and the staccato crackle of heavy gunfire.
Lara nodded, unable to speak for fear of squeaking her response.
“Hell, yes,” shouted Hardy, rabid enthusiasm itself.
From the moment they’d entered the battlefield, Lara had been studying their nominated casualty. Dressed in camouflaged battledress and over fifty metres away, the man lay face-down with a wooden rifle strapped across his back. He was part-hidden behind a burnt-out Humvee. According to the pre-exercise briefing, she and Hardy were to be pinned down, unable to move until instructed to proceed by Sergeant Jensen.
Since the start of the simulated bombardment, their casualty had been lying on his front, head resting on his folded arms, apparently oblivious to the noise of mock battle. He actually appeared to be sleeping.
Jensen turned to face the casualty. He took a referee’s whistle from the breast pocket of his shirt and blew it twice.
Immediately, their casualty snapped awake. He punched a button on the battery pack next to his left hip and started writhing.
“Medic! Medic!” he screamed, his voice betraying fear and pain, but growing weaker.
The battery pack activated a pump and the pump pulsed blood through a nasty-looking wound on the casualty’s left thigh, up near his buttock. A nicked artery at least. He’d bleed out in minutes. He’d die without immediate treatment.
The setup was so realistic, Lara gave herself over to the moment.
She took up a sprinter’s stance, down on one knee, hands to the ground. She held her breath.
Wait. Wait for it.
Jensen held out his arm, his dark skin glistening with sweat mixed with dirt from being showered in rubble since the start of the shelling. He was the only thing stopping her from darting across the open ground and exposing herself to the artillery noise and the flying bullets.
The sleeves of his military uniform bore the inverted sergeant’s stripes of a reservist in the Danish Army. Dark green, they blended in with the camouflage.
Jensen spoke perfect English, albeit with a strong Scandinavian accent. From the start of the course, he’d singled her out for special attention, encouraging her to work smarter, not harder. For a reservist, the man could be more of a military hard-case than some of Ryan’s associates. Although Jensen didn’t know it, he’d been trying to instil military discipline into a civilian medic, who wasn’t even a real doctor. Although Lara’s veterinary background gave her enough crucial medical knowledge, she shouldn’t be treating humans. Not really. Not even in simulation.
Stop it, girl. You can do this.
She crept forwards, eager to get moving. So eager, she bumped into Jensen’s arm.
“Wait there, Dr Sloane,” Jensen ordered, half under his breath. “Wait … don’t you dare move, soldier.”
“But he’s bleeding out, Sergeant. He needs treatment now.”
Scowling, Jensen patted his hand towards the ground. He shook his head, trying to hear the instructions on the radio pressed against his ear.
“The bombardment hasn’t finished yet. Move into that open space and you’ll be targets. What good are dead medics to an injured soldier?”
A very good point.
Another rocket passed overhead. This one failed to explode when it hit the ground. What did Ryan call them? UXBs, unexploded bombs. Dangerous for a future clear-up operation, but far enough away not to give them any immediate concerns.
“He’s right, Doctor Sloane. Maybe we should wait,” Hardy said. “Why not stay here, where it’s nice and safe?”
The hesitation in his voice suggested caution, but she didn’t believe it. Not for a moment. He was goading her.
Manic excitement sprayed off him in a shower of sweat and pheromones. He practically dared her to break cover.
Darn you, Hardy.
Despite the ear defenders, her hearing still rang with the aftereffects of the ongoing high-intensity barrage. According to the pre-exercise briefing, this was warning fire, designed not to pummel the imaginary opposition into surrender, but to keep their heads down and give her and the other medics time to treat and evacuate the wounded.
Jensen clicked the button on his walkie-talkie.
“Messaged received. We’re clear to go. Tango One, out.”
Before Jensen had time to lower his arm, Lara ducked under it and scampered across the open ground, bent at the waist and keeping low, rushing headlong into apparent danger. Hardy let out an animal roar and darted after her.
He kept to her left and slightly behind, using her body for cover.
The heavy medical backpack hampered her movements, pressing her towards the ground, but its contents would save lives. She could put up with the discomfort—if her lower back survived the weight.
Jensen shouted something, but she ignored him. At her side but falling behind, Hardy whooped in air like it was in short supply. If the overbearing braggart stopped pumping so much iron and started working on his aerobic endurance, he’d be able to keep up. The man needed to stop smoking, too.
Useless piece of South African flotsam.
Ominously, during the previous fifteen seconds, their patient had stopped screaming, stopped squirming. Darn it. Were they already too late?
A rifle’s single report broke through her worries. Sniper fire. The bullet whistled high over her back and smashed one of the few remaining panes of glass in the building ahead and to her right.
For crying out loud, that was real!
A real bullet. Not a blank. When it came to realism, the course organisers didn’t skimp on the resources.
At her side and out of Jensen’s earshot, Hardy mumbled, “Fok hel! Fucking close, ja? This is brill. Better than a bloody safari.”
Ignoring Hardy as best she could, Lara prayed the shooter knew what he, or she, was doing. How ironic would it be if they were hit by “friendly fire” during a test?
Panting from the exertions and the tension, she reached the cover of the wrecked Humvee and dropped to her knees beside the casualty. A large puddle of a liquid that looked like human blood darkened the dusty concrete beneath him. It gave off an unfamiliar, sickly sweet tang. She unclipped his realistic-looking rifle and set it aside.
“Okay, soldier,” she said, leaning leaned close to the casualty and shouting over a storm of recorded small arms fire and mortar crumps. “I’m Grace, and this is Hardy. We’re here to help you.”
She pulled a pair of surgical gloves from her pocket and tugged them onto her sweaty, dirt-encrusted hands.
Her voice, weak and high-pitched with fear, was an embarrassment. Lara cleared her throat and dragged off her backpack.
“Can you hear me?”
Her patient groaned.
Alive. Good. Now what?
Jensen arrived at her side. He moved to the head of the patient and dropped to one knee, studying their every move, but saying nothing.
No help there.
She was the leader. Hardy wouldn’t help even if he did know what to do.
Lara unclipped the top flap of the backpack, broke open one of the medical packs, and jammed the absorbent dressing hard into the wound. The patient barely reacted to what would have been intense and shocking pain. The viscous red liquid soaked through the dressing in seconds. She added another on top of the first and pressed harder. The blood flow reduced a little.
Hardy shrugged off his backpack and placed it on the ground at his feet. After a moment’s hesitation while he whooped in air, he opened the backpack and unzipped the padded bag protecting a battery-powered combined cardiac and BP monitor. He sliced open the casualty’s sleeve with the scissors clipped to the bag’s inner flap, unfurled the monitor’s integral blood pressure cuff, and strapped it to the man’s arm. As instructed in the pre-exercise briefing, he didn’t hit the power button.
“What next?” Jensen asked, his voice calm and low, but carrying over the background noise of battle.
Good question, darn it.
The training. Remember the classroom training.
“Pack the wound and secure the dressing in place,” she answered, panting hard and searching for one of the webbing straps—smaller versions of the ones a haulier would use—in her pack. The glutinous, slippery blood smearing the fingers of her surgical gloves made her actions more difficult, slower.
Jensen nodded. “You’re the leader. Take charge.”
“Hardy, run the vitals while I check for other injuries,” she ordered.
She turned to Jensen. “After we turn him, we’ll force in some fluids to counteract shock and keep the blood vessels open. Then we’ll attach an oxygen mask. Should keep the casualty stable while we’re awaiting evac.”
As Lara spoke, she uncoiled the strap, wrapped it around the wound and over the dressing, and worked the ratchet until the blood stopped flowing. Not good for the leg over the long-term—restricted blood flow would compromise the tissue below the wound—but as a stop-gap, it would reduce blood loss and might save the casualty’s life.
Three rifle shots cracked overhead in quick succession. She flinched, but kept working.
After securing the strap’s locking mechanism, Lara simulated a search for other injuries, working from the centre out, vital organs first, then the extremities. No obvious signs of a headwound. The soldier’s helmet remained in place and was undamaged. No blood near the head or neck.
Lara mimed checking the alignment of the cervical and thoracic spine. No obvious signs of vertebral displacement. She glanced up at Jensen.
“No bones broken, no other external injuries. Agreed?”
Jensen consulted the notes on his clipboard. “Confirmed,” he said and added a few marks to his assessment form.
Hardy called out the vitals, reading from the cheat sheet pinned to the machine.
“The patient is … tachycardic and hypotensive,” he said, “No response to questions, probable loss of consciousness.”
“Numbers please,” Lara demanded—she needed to know how fast the heart was beating and how dangerously low the BP was.
“Er …” Hardy ran a forefinger down the cheat sheet.
“Alright, vrou,” he snapped. “Keep your panties on … Heart rate one-thirty-seven. Blood pressure”—he consulted the notes again—“seventy-five over thirty. That help at all, woman?”
The insufferable fool grinned again, treating the exercise like a game.
She tried pulling in another deep breath, but her lungs already burned with the stress of working hard and breathing real dust.
Take it easy, girl.
If she let the fool get to her, Hardy would end up becoming a real casualty in a simulated war. A casualty from her boot up his backside.
While she assessed the patient, Lara took a second to run a self-evaluation. Breathing hard, sweating freely, sticky, blood-soaked fingers shaking. A total wreck. She finally had an understanding, a minor inkling, of what it might have been like in battle. How could anyone survive the real thing and stay mentally intact?
Ryan and his men had done this for real so many times. It didn’t bear thinking about.
Lara shuddered and, while the explosions boomed all around her, she drove the thought to the back of her mind. Analysis would come later, when things were quiet. When she could think clearly and examine her reactions.
“Of course it matters,” she said, gritting her teeth once again. “Thank you.”
“In short,” Hardy added, goading her, “you’re losing the patient, vrou.”
“We’re a team, Doctor Krüger! We are not losing this patient. We need to turn him. Get a better assessment,” she said, looking up at Jensen again, once she’d finished drilling Hardy with a scowl. “We need at least one more for the turn. Are you allowed to help?”
Jensen nodded and signalled to one of the crewman from Charlie Team, who scampered towards them, carrying a stretcher. He dropped it on the ground next to Hardy and raced back to his team.
Bravo Team would have to turn the casualty with only three people. Not ideal, but possible and, in this scenario, essential.
“I’ll take the head and call the actions,” Lara said.
“That’s right, Gracie-girl,” Hardy said so quietly that Jensen, with his back turned as he crawled to the patient’s feet, might have missed it. “You take the head. Bet you’re real good at that, vrou.”
Hardy’s accompanying snort and double eyebrow hitch annoyed Lara as much as anything he’d ever said. If his antics cost her the assessment, she’d slap the smirk off his smug face.
Somehow, his improper use of her fake given name added injury to the intentional insult.
Lara stabilised their patient’s head. Jensen straightened the man’s legs carefully. Hardy did the same with the casualty’s chest and right arm only—the left being pinned beneath the body and inaccessible.
After a brief lull, the firing started up again, and a cascade of rifle bullets flew overhead. They smacked into the dirt and the sandbags around them. Impossibly, dangerously close. Hardy’s smirk disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. Even he could see the very real danger.
All the while, Lara kept talking to the patient, explaining what they were doing.
“Just relax. We’ve got you. Going to turn you onto your back now. Try to relax.”
The casualty groaned.
“Ready?” she called to her team.
Hardy and Jensen nodded.
“Rotate to the left on three. One, two, three.”
She took the weight of the patient’s head and concentrated on maintaining its alignment with the shoulders all the way through the one-eighty-degree rotation. Working in concert, they had the patient on his back without incident. Hardy moved the casualty’s left arm to the side.
Throughout the turn, Jensen kept his eyes on Lara, making sure their movements were correctly synchronised. His skill at handling the dual role of turning the casualty while monitoring the exercise impressed the heck out of her.
“Stretcher please, Dr Krüger,” she shouted over another concussive roar.
Hardy grabbed the stretcher, freed the multiple retaining clips, and turned back, hovering over the casualty. Almost in slow motion, a huge splodge of sweat dripped from the tip of Hardy’s nose and dropped onto the prone man’s lips.
The patient grunted and wrenched his head from Lara’s hands. He turned to the side, and spat into the concrete at Hardy’s knees. Hardy yelped and fell backwards, landing backside-first onto a jagged pile of rubble.
“Damn it all to hell, man,” the casualty shouted, spitting again. “That’s rank, so it is.” He coughed and spat for a third time, splattering the thigh of Hardy’s camouflage trousers.
Something about the cod Irish accent broke through the pounding artillery fire. She recognised the voice. Would have recognised it anywhere.
“Oh, for pity’s sake,” Lara shouted, sitting back on her heels.